Harry Minium has been covering Old Dominion Monarchs football at the Virginian-Pilot for the last several years, but as a longtime resident of the Hampton Roads area, he's observed the program from when it was in the planning stages, to its first game in 2009 against Chowan, its move from FCS independence to the CAA in 2011, and now in its present stage as an FBS team competing in Conference USA. We're glad that he was able to spend a few moments with us answering a few questions before the team welcomes Middle Tennessee to Foreman Field on Friday.
I have to imagine that the atmosphere among the fanbase is on a whole new level with Friday's game on the horizon. Obviously, you've covered the program from day one, so you have a better sense of what it's like that I do. Can you describe what you're hearing and seeing up there in Norfolk as far as how the Hampton Roads community has rallied around the program?
This is only my third year covering the team, but I've lived in the Norfolk/Virginia Beach area most of my life. so I've watched the program begin and grow. A consultant hired to help ODU begin football estimated they would sell about 6,000 season tickets. They quickly sold out the stadium. 38 games in a row have been sellouts at the 20,118-seat Foreman Field. This region has 1.7 million residents and no major sports team. ODU is the only FBS program within 2 1/2 hours. ODU's plan is to become the home team for the region. Foreman Field is the place to be at ODU games for political and business figures from the area.
Looking back at the win over Rice: I'd imagine that it really, in my opinion, set a tone for the team moving forward with the remainder of the schedule. What is the staff doing to keep them grounded with a huge game on Fox Sports 1 against Middle Tennessee coming up?
I think ODU's players realize that they had a lot of good fortune against Rice. Five starters were out with injuries and the quarterback separated his shoulder in the first quarter. Coach Bobby Wilder has told his players to keep things in perspective and said, from his perspective, ODU has not really been a good team at this point.
What do you make of this defense? Granted, they did allow just three to Eastern Michigan, but 28 to an FCS team in Hampton, 46 to North Carolina State and 42 to Rice. Is it correct to assume that we'll see another offensive shootout against MT on Friday, and what plans do the staff have in place to get this area of the team squared away, not only this season but in seasons to come?
ODU's defense is better than last season, but still not good enough to be successful over the long haul in FBS. When you're an FCS program moving up, the area where you can't finesse things is the defensive line. Either you're good enough or you're not. ODU has only two FBS recruiting classes. Nearly all of the guys playing on defense are from those two classes. Some are junior college players, but many are freshmen and sophomores. ODU's linemen are bigger and better than they were last year. The same will be true next year. They have five defensive backs and four linebackers in their 2015 recruiting class. They had six defensive linemen in their 2014 recruiting class. It will take ODU time, but they're making progress.
I do expect a shootout Friday night. Both teams run the spread, as does nearly everyone in Conference USA, and both have given up a ton of points.
Obviously, we can't talk about ODU football without talking about #14 under center, who had a huge game, of course, against Rice. Right now, do you think that Taylor Heinicke could go toe-to-toe with guys like Rakeem Cato at Marshall, and looking ahead to after the season, do you believe that he gets, at the very least, a free agent look by an NFL team in the spring?
Taylor Heinicke will be in training camp somewhere and he will have a lot of options. He's too good not to get a good look from the NFL. The question is whether he's drafted or not. More than 20 NFL scouts have been to ODU practices so far this season -- two attended practice today. They're all coming to evaluate Heinicke. They wouldn't be spending that much time unless he's a serious draft candidate.
Finally, from an off the field standpoint, there's plans to build a new stadium for the football team that have kind of gotten stuck in the mud. Is there anything new in that regard to report, and is it realistic to think that they'll be able to get it done by 2018, which has been the date floated for completion?
ODU officials haven't said much about their new stadium plans in months. The state government is making budget cuts, and making those cuts has distracted ODU officials. They won't speculate on a timeline. But I went to the University of Houston last week to look at their new stadium. It took officials there a little more than two years to design and build their stadium. So 2018 is doable for ODU if the school really wants to open a stadium then. And that would be the ideal time, because Virginia Tech is scheduled to play at ODU in 2018.